Vote Leave: Illegal social media spending confirmed by investigators

17 Jul 2018

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaking at a rally in the UK. Image: Dominic Dudley/Shutterstock

The official pro-Brexit campaign group, Vote Leave, has been fined £61,000 and been reported to the UK police.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal that erupted in March of this year sent shockwaves throughout the political and technology worlds, while causing widespread user concern about personal data and how private information may have been used to manipulate global democratic processes – including Brexit.

In March, whistleblower Christopher Wylie spoke about how AggregateIQ, a company with links to Cambridge Analytica, was on the receiving end of money from Vote Leave-affiliated group BeLeave for microtargeting services during the referendum campaign of 2016.

Today (17 July), four months after the original scandal broke, Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and been reported to the UK police force by the Electoral Commission. The watchdog said the punitive fines were imposed on the official Brexit campaign due to its refusal to fully cooperate with the investigation, declining to be interviewed.

The commission found that BeLeave spent more than £675,000 with AggregateIQ in coordination with Vote Leave, money that was not declared by the pro-Brexit campaign group.

Fronted by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, Vote Leave broke its legal spending limit of £7m by close to £500,000. Vote Leave official David Halsall and BeLeave founder Darren Grimes have both been reported to law enforcement, with the latter receiving a fine of £20,000.

Lack of cooperation by pro-Brexit group

Interviews with Vote Leave were requested in November 2017 and further requests in December and the following January were not responded to. Legal letters were sent by Vote Leave to the commission, threatening a judicial review. Vote Leave was also issued with a formal investigation notice to provide documents, and it did not reply by the designated deadline or produce the papers, but said they could be inspected at the office of its legal representative. The documents, when eventually made available, were incomplete and/or inaccurate.

“Over a three-month period, we actually made five attempts to interview Vote Leave and we were unable to. We have in fact issued a record fine for failure to cooperate with a statutory notice because we found it so difficult to get Vote Leave to work with us in this investigation,” said Electoral Commission chief Claire Bassett.

Substantial evidence

Bob Posner, Electoral Commission director of political finance, said: “We found substantial evidence that the two groups [Vote Leave and BeLeave] worked to a common plan, did not declare their joint working and did not adhere to the legal spending limits.

“These are serious breaches of the laws put in place by parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums.”

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office recently published a detailed report examining the implementation of standards for digital campaigns in order to preserve democratic integrity.

AggregateIQ is still subject to a separate investigation in Canada, but this week’s revelations show the book is far from closed on Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaking at a rally in the UK. Image: Dominic Dudley/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects